Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Children of Who, Exactly?

Commentator Anonymous raises some fruitful questions in the comment section for

I've been considering a question lately of great personal importance. Perhaps I'd like to frame it first.
Lots of people here would probably consider genetically enhancing their kids once the technology is at the level necessary. I've been wondering lately what "your kid" means. It's pretty straightfoward in a natural birth. But if you start changing the genes, to what extent does the fact that the base material was yours still make the kid yours?
What is the difference between a substantially genetically altered child from your sperm and a child from another man's sperm?

As an aside, it is probably a good idea to pick a pseudonym for such communications.  It doesn't even have to be unique, I have several that I use in non-overlapping domains.
I made a first pass at an attempt to address our esteemed commenter's questions, but I think to do it justice, it will require a post, perhaps more than one.

Let's start by discussing in a cursory fashion the genetic enhancement technologies that are likely to show their heads in the decades to come.  There are two big narratives out there insofar as how people inherit capability X.  The first is typified by the article below---specific genetic variants contribute pluses and minuses to said attributes, possibly with some weird nonlinear or multiplicative effects.  This is the big meta narrative behind the human genome project as it applies to what we term genetic 'enhancement'.
(Article describes several single gene variants that are associated with larger/smaller brains and higher/lower IQ)
The second narrative comes to us by way of Cochrane, although it has a long pedigree.
This narrative is basically that it isn't so much the variants of the genes that do the damage but rather the accumulation of mutational load.  Applied to intelligence, it would imply that a 'spell checking' protocol---probably akin to the defect detection process used in semiconductor manufacturing---would result in very substantial improvements to that capability.  People with higher intelligence, in this narrative, mostly just have genes in that area that are just less broken by mutational vandalism.
This, by the way, is a REALLY old narrative---most ancient cultures believed that they were the inferior descendants of much more awesome ancestors, who typically had much longer lifespans and were more capable in a host of ways.

The good news is that it is likely that we'll have a much more clear picture of the extent to which each of these narratives is true fairly soon now that sequencing has found its own analog of Moore's Law.

If the answer is mostly the first narrative, we'd expect to see productized implementations of Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis deployed, probably in the 2020-2030 timeframe.  They'd probably evolve into some sort of best 1 of N protocol, where the prospective sperm and eggs were filtered according to the best information available.  Would a child born of this protocol be still yours and your spouse's?  I'm inclined to think so.  You'd expect to see this a lot for children who are already born using IVF and other fertility treatments, making them likely the beta and alpha testers of said protocols.  It's also exceedingly unlikely that such technology can be stopped politically since there's no bright line to form a useful Schelling fence behind.  You can talk about remediation (good) versus enhancement (bad), but the line between them is very blurry indeed and there's every incentive to blur it beyond recognition.  Plus it is unstable from an engineering standpoint, every enhanced child creates pressures for more to enhance theirs as well.  Such a process is already used if memory serves for Tay-Sachs, so it's unlikely that the genie could be crammed back into the bottle even should we wish it.
Philosophically, on this, say you selected one combination of sperm and egg from, say, 25 possibilities.  All of them came from you and your wife, so the child born of it is still obviously yours.  You've loaded the dice, but God still casts them.  I bet you loaded the hell out of the dice when you selected your mate too, you scoundrel, I know I did.
How much 'better' on average would such children be?  Honestly, I don't know, but does it really matter?  If you were to exceed the Duggars and went ahead and actually had all 25 potential children, and one was clearly 'superior' insofar as you or society deems to define it would there be any innate evil in this?  I don't think so, and I think most parents with large families understand that some of their children 'rolled better than others' even though the proverbial dice were the same.  None, in as much as I know, have called for the Handicapper General.

The second narrative is far stickier in its implications if it is the dominant one, frankly, even if it has equal weight to the first in practice.  I believe I'll give it its own post.  As I alluded to above, it has some distinctly Antediluvian overtones to it.  It raises serious questions, not just of when a child ceases to be 'yours' but where does the boundary of 'You' versus 'Not You' lie.  I'll wrestle with that in another post, when I am less fatigued.


Anonymous said...

BTW, funny comic:

Anonymous said...

Or just go to SMBC because the link is broke.

Jehu said...

Amusing---yes it's likely that people will choose modifications that will lead towards more attractive children and higher probabilities of grandchildren. I think an aggression arms race is more likely though than the one depicted in said comic.

Alrenous said...

"This, by the way, is a REALLY old narrative---most ancient cultures believed that they were the inferior descendants of much more awesome ancestors, who typically had much longer lifespans and were more capable in a host of ways."

This is due to bias. I forget most of the argument except the example, though.

In Roman times, the further back you go, the more fantastic their ages are recorded as. However, this is due to innumeracy. Independent indicators show A: contradictions in age claims and B: rising expectancy, not lowering. As numeracy improved, age records declined towards matching the (rising) independent evidence.

"It raises serious questions, not just of when a child ceases to be 'yours' but where does the boundary of 'You' versus 'Not You' lie."

I am my consciousness. Basically if you cut it and I feel bleeding, it's me.

While I have normal jealousy, and issues with deception, raising someone else's kid isn't a big deal for me. They don't have my genes, so what? They'll have my ideas. I think this attitude is primarily genetic.

Anonymous said...


Your ideas will fade in time. I have no clue what values my great great grandfather drilled into his kids. However, genes are forever. If my great grandfather was like X then I will probably be like X.

I also often wonder if I'm programmed to like being the father of another's child. When you look down into a child's face, your subconscious picks up on ques as to whether or not its your's. Then your brain will predispose you to being a father based on that evaluation. All independent of your consciousness.

Also, if genetic descendents are more like you, then I think you would better understand eachother. A child with your genes is likely to have the same moods as you, go through similair experiences as you, have similair drives.

Jehu said...

For me at least, the tie of blood is really important. I'm not predisposed to particularly like little children as such---people who are probably have an easier time with adoption.
Like I've mentioned before, my little ones appear to inherit a substantial portion of my self-love as well as my love for my wife. I first felt this pull years ago with my niece, and it was substantially attenuated in comparison. That feeling makes it vastly easier to endure the difficulties and pains that the little ones bring with them.
I understand that the earliest pyramids are the best designed and the later ones are like cheaper knock-offs. I'd not be so quick to discount common ancient narratives. Often times we dig up (literally) evidence to support them.

Alrenous said...

Anonymous, your genes will fade with time. On average, your great great grandchildren will have 6% of your genes.

My ideas at least have the possibility of surviving, if they're worth keeping. And if your genes aren't worth keeping, they won't survive any more than my bad ideas will.

I understand that the earliest pyramids are the best designed and the later ones are like cheaper knock-offs.

I understand the earlier iPods were the best designed and the later ones are cheaper knock offs. Copying good ideas badly is a human universal.
Or at least, even if actual iPods were getting better, they won't now. Or if you don't like iPods I'll use Fords or houses or lightbulbs or...
From another perspective, the cycle of the day and the seasons is built into our bones. It's only living in cities or city-copying outposts that let us forget this.

Jehu said...

Yes, the fraction of the genes that are yours declines 50% per generation, but there are other factors:
You picked the other half of your child's genetic makeup right? and
Perhaps your great great grandchildren only have 1/16 of your genes. You did have more than 16 of them didn't you?

Alrenous said...

I'm not saying there's no argument for genetic children. I'm saying the argument against memetic children is dead in the water.